Women’s rights: only for the good times?

Jean Burnett

Jean Burnett asks if our hard-won rights are are less secure than we think.

Feminist writers have frequently highlighted the connection between hard times and a backlash against working mothers in particular and working women generally. This begs the question, is the issue of women’s rights a moveable feast…is it a case of yes, dear you can have rights and opportunities when the going’s good or in times of special need, e.g.war, but when the economy sags get back to the house and wait at the school gates?

We have recently heard a Labour government (pro women, pro workers’ rights etc) considering whether to withdraw plans to extend flexible working rights to all parents of under sixteen year olds. This legislation applied overwhelmingly to women who are still shouldering the responsibility for childcare regardless of their career path.

During the Second World War when women were needed to work in the factories or to replace men who had gone off to fight, nurseries and crèches appeared on almost every street as if by magic. Women were given undreamed of opportunities to train as welders or train drivers. When the men returned it all went into reverse and married women who worked outside the home were often vilified.  In the teaching profession and the civil service, resignation was mandatory as soon as you married.

It’s difficult for confident young career women today to imagine such a society. They tend to be unaware how recent a phenomenon is the concept of women’s rights in the workplace. (viz the schoolgirl whose reaction to reading Jane Eyre was “Why didn’t she stop whingeing and get a job in a bank?”)

Thirty years after the Equal Pay Act the gender gap is as wide as ever and the CBI went into ecstatic mode at the suggestion of curbing flexitime. The most worrying aspect of the government’s idea is not whether it actually happens but the fact that it could be suggested quite calmly because we are in an economic downturn.

Women did not take to streets in protest – a problem in itself. Why are we so careless of our hard-won liberties? Will the Human Rights Act or EU legislation protect us if the recession bites deeper…who will be first in line for redundancy? Think about this if you were not planning to vote at the next general election!

It makes you glad to be a writer, doesn’t it? Our age old freedom to earn next- to -nothing while remaining quietly typing in our attics is one to be cherished!

bww before the unchained launch

Sisters doin’ it for ourselves? Here we are setting up for last week’s amazing launch. More pics and stories soon, or take a look at our Facebook Page for Writers Unchained .

There’s a link to Jean’s novel on the Bookshop Page.

From writing group to publishing team – we did it!

Ali Bacon

Ali Bacon looks back on the Unchained project which comes to fruition with tomorrow’s book launch

Writers are solitary beings and even when we venture out to meet other writers, we keep our basic egocentricity – how best to tell our unique and individual stories, how to develop a voice, what will work for our particular readership. In BWW we have mostly known each other for years, and as is the way with these things have tried to support each other through good times and bad –  from put-downs from agents to more serious life events. But since the Unchained anthology got off the blocks, with the aim of producing a unified piece of work to professional standards (and selling it far and wide) we’ve had to get our act together as a team.

This has presented quite a few challenges along the way. Ironically we worried less about each-other’s work than the possibility of our own pieces not coming up to scratch. We realised we needed an editorial board to make sure nothing below par slipped through and appointed three of our number whose decisions would be final – well almost. Luckily a deal of to-ing and fro-ing was permitted until everyone was happy with the finished result. 

But we knew about writing and editing. The fun really began when we had to deal with everything else.  Although everyone loved the initial cover produced by Joe at Wildspark , there were ten opinions on how to get it exactly right in terms of content and appearance – and that was only the front! Website design and content was also mulled over although maybe at not such great length and there was ready agreement onsharing out blog posts.  

On the air!
On the air!

And now a book launch! Amazingly the publicity machine we didn’t know we had cranked into action. Aspects of our lives which don’t apply in the context of our Thursday evening meetings became vital to the project –  like one of us actually works in marketing, and another can get things printed in a trice. An ex-teacher has contacts in several schools and while some of us have thrown ourselves around FB and Twitter, others have simply done the legwork by making sure every café on Gloucester Road (and there are lots!) has a poster advertising the launch. Someone else again had a contact in BCFM so that we could even take to the airwaves.   We also learned when something doesn’t need to be discussed. When one of our editors spied that with two weeks to go we had no firm plan for the launch event she bravely just went ahead and made one, for which she has our eternal thanks. 

Of course there are many other people without whom … and we’ll be sure to thank them all tomorrow (eek!) night. But as a group we’ve come along way from simply turning up, drinking coffee and talking writing. Maybe we didn’t quite realise what we’d taken on when we decided to publish a book, but by George we did it!


Enjoying the plot, digging the writing

Louise Gethin

When Louise Gethin isn’t writing or performing at The Thunderbolt, you might well find her on her allotment. 

 I recently heard the poem by Seamus Heaney – Digging. I fell in love with it on so many levels.

Running through my veins is the blood of my Irish grandfather, who was a keen gardener. I am a writer and a digger.

In fact, only the other week, I was busy on my allotment digging a new site for my compost. There is something about digging which I find inherently satisfying. Last year I dug a hole for a pond, in which there is now a resident frog who pops up from time to time. And no, I haven’t tried to kiss him. I did find him the other week wandering across to the apple tree. I thought, Poor love, he’s lost. So I took him back to the pond. He subsequently spent the next ten minutes hopping and stopping all the way back to the apple tree. I am sure he was frowning. What did I learn from this encounter? Frogs know what they’re about. Leave them be.

Gardening like writing takes perseverence, commitment, vision and digging deeper than I ever think is possible but the rewards are truly great. When presented with a completed short story that says what I want it to, or by an inspired sentence that has taken me 12 hours to create, or by the well-balanced vision of vegetables, flowers and fruits which is the result of a season of labour, I know that I am truly alive and can make a difference.

lilypond 1600x1200
Leave frogs alone

Tending my plots, both literary and green, involves shaping, crafting, thinking, sitting back and viewing, then starting the whole process all over again.

If you don’t write or dig, you should try them. They’re fun.

And don’t get me started on my shed which celebrated its third anniversary this year, or the recent discovery that I love gnomes…

A time to reap, a time to sow, a time to NaNoWriMo?

Sally Hare

Sally Hare gives her advice on what – and what not – to expect if you’re brave enough to take up the Nanowrimo challenge.  

Remember, remember, the first of November …

I wonder if you, like me, feel a certain restlessness at this time each year? As late summer warmth turns to autumnal bluster, the annual question nags. To NaNoWriMo, or not to NaNoWriMo?

National Novel Writing Month – the 50,000-word writing sprint – is certainly one way to avoid facing up to Christmas. At a steady 1,667 words per day it’s certainly not for the hesitant. But is it really worth giving up your life, and possibly your sanity, for a whole month?

Success in my first year I attribute to the fact that I was already working on a novel: I had characters, a vague plot and an even vaguer idea of where it was going. By the end of November I had a complete first draft. The second year I wasn’t so lucky regarding an initial idea – instead I decided to write 50,000 words and hope that, somewhere in the process, a narrative would develop. Two weeks and 12,000 words of choppy, unfocussed prose later, I chose common-sense over bloody-mindedness and gave up. Last year, finding myself in a similar creative space, I didn’t even start.

fastest writer in the world
Could you be the fastest writer in the world?

That’s not to say my enthusiasm for NaNoWriMo has cooled. But let’s not be under any illusions: if you manage to stay the course, by 1st December you’ll have 50,000 words of little literary merit whatsoever under your belt. Publishers will not be beating a path to your door. Yet. That’s not the point. What you will also have is a first draft to work from over the coming months. And that’s a fantastic treasure. Especially if, like me, you’re the sort of writer who writes ten words then re-edits them for an hour rather than moving the narrative on. Or the sort of writer who, wrangling a precious hour or day to work, finds it incredibly hard to get back into your current project, totting up endless games of Freecell while trying to regain your creative mojo. Then manages it ten minutes before the kids are due home. Having a rough template of where you’re going makes it so much easier to get back into and move along, even if you didn’t make it all the way to the magical 50,000. Plus, having spent a month totally immersed in grit-toothed word production mode, you’ll be less likely to fall into the time-wasting traps in the first place.

No plot no problemIf you are considering NaNoWriMo, I recommend the companion book to the challenge, No Plot? No Problem! by its founder, Chris Baty. It’s an easy read, full of infectious enthusiasm for dumping quality for quantity – from handy hints to keeping going (make a cheque out to an organisation you despise, then give it to a friend: ask them to post it to said organisation if you give up: p.55), to week-by-week support for the various stages of the progress (delight, despair, determination, celebration). There’s also a lot of support on the website http://nanowrimo.org/ where you can track your progress, network with other participants, and find local groups (these groups often stage mass writing sessions, if the wallpaper’s starting to close in).

This year, I’m fortunate enough to have started a new project, so I think I’m ready for the marathon again (brag to everyone that you’re doing it, then fear of public humiliation will keep you going: p. 53). For those considering it, good luck! We will recognise each other on the December streets by our other-worldly stares and panicked Christmas shopping.

News! Unchained to be unleashed at library launch

We are thrilled to announce that preparations for the launch of Unchained have been finalised and even more delighted to reveal it will take place in the gorgeous surroundings of Bristol Reference Library. Less than two weeks to go and the excitement at BWW Towers is mounting!

Join us for the launch


If anyone out there hasn’t heard the details, the launch event is part of the Bristol Festival of Literature (lots of other great stuff going on there) and will be at 7.30 on October 23rd. Every local writer or even reader we know should have had an invitation by now, but if you have somehow been missed, do leave a comment and we’ll get one to you.

Or download our Press Release (.pdf file 220KB approx)

unchained coverOf course we hope the joy will not be confined to Bristol. This is  celebration of all libraries, everywhere and other things besides. If you can’t join us on the night, the book is in bookshops now and available to order online. Don’t forget the proceeds are going to a great cause, the National Literacy Trust.

There’s still a lot to do before the Big Day, but now we have the book in our hot little hands.  Worth a small celebration!

Bristol Women Writers

By the way, this post will be stuck fast to the top of this page for the time being – but don’t forget to have a look at the new posts which will still be coming up underneath.

Children and writing don’t mix – or do they?

Jenni O'ConnorJenni O’Connor, novelist, haiku poet, journalist and copywriter,  is also mother to Zoe, aged four. Here she muses on the unlikely fusion between writing and parenting.

“Children and writing don’t mix.” So said one famous male writer, whose name escapes me, presumably as he hastened to the haven of his oak-panelled study, slamming the door to shut out the sound of a wailing baby.

I was musing on this truism today, as I juggled a lorry load of commercial writing commitments with a two-hour long school day – my daughter has just started school and is in the midst of an extended settling in period. Having picked her up, fed her and admired a motley collection of leaf paintings and drawings, and reassured her that it really is OK not to have been able to recognise all the numbers from one to twenty in her second week at school, I then fired up the laptop and CBeebies simultaneously, so I could finish a press release while she enjoyed a bit of time out.

Oh, the guilt! Looking at it that way, children and writing really don’t mix. There’s never the head space, even if there are – on occasion – periods of twenty minutes or more when it might, just might, be possible to pen anything more profound than a shopping list. If only I weren’t so tired.

“How did you write a novel with a baby?” I’m often asked. The truth is, I didn’t. I wrote it before she came along, having very sensibly negotiated a four-day week with my very understanding employer. (I’ve never been a pre-dawn writer, nor a midnight-to-two-am one).

But, around naps and short periods at nursery, and Thursday mornings with gran-gran, I did manage to edit it, and eventually (in 2012), Reach for a Different Sun was nominated a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. When it came to the Unchained anthology, I’m embarrassed to admit that my story was the only one to show up at the first editorial workshop as a first draft stream of consciousness, and it was only with the many thoughtful, insightful and diligent insights from my ‘writing buddy’ that I managed to knock it into any kind of shape.

And yet, and yet. When Zoe was one, and I was just about able to step back and reflect on the wonder and madness of becoming a parent, I wrote a collection of haikus, exploring the journey into motherhood, the marvels and miracles of a baby’s first milestones, and the evolving relationship between parent and child. Perhaps this shortest of short forms, along with flash fiction, is best suited to new (and new-ish) parenthood, given as it is  to capturing and distilling the essence of a given moment in time.

But the greatest gift which parenthood can bring a writer, to my view, is the opportunity to see the world through a child’s eye once more. The chance to regain the awe and wonder in simple things, to stop running just to stay still (in theory, if the laundry, washing up and ironing are ever done), and smile. Children smile, on average, 400 times a day – but by the time they reach adulthood, this is generally reduced to just 20.

So even if it seems impossible; even if there isn’t, in this moment, the time to connect the creative neurons and put fingers to keyboard, I’d urge all writers who are also parents of young children to do this: stop, breathe and observe. Your child or children will bring you untold insights, truths and delights – just by existing. If you’re so inclined, you can jot them down and save them for the day when you finally have more time. And even if they don’t refresh your writing mojo, these moments have the capacity to enrich your life, as long as you’re prepared to stop and listen.

Reach for a Different SunJenni’s first novel, Reach for a Different Sun, is available on Amazon. Her company, Kaiku Communications, specialises in copywriting for print and web. She is currently planning her second novel – though she realises this may take some time!

Women as the authors – and subjects – of crime fiction

Jane Jones

From our very own crime-writer Jane Jones

The fascination with what frightens us starts young. When I was a little girl, my grandmother found some pictures I’d drawn which did not call forth the usual fond praise. The images showed a black-hatted figure cutting up naked children with a knife and fork. She was so appalled that she immediately consulted my parents! Was I psychologically disturbed? No more so than any other child after their first reading of ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

At thirteen, I discovered murder mysteries. Previously, the death of a fictional character had tended to upset me: Beth March in ‘Good Wives’, Helen Burns in ‘Jane Eyre’, Bambi’s mother …But when Agatha Christie killed off a character, I felt no distress whatsoever. It simply came with the territory. A particularly gruesome murder might elicit a frisson, but all that really mattered to me was unravelling the mystery, safe in the knowledge that justice would always be done by the final chapter. The novels, despite their subject matter, were not the stuff of nightmares.

I once heard P.D. James suggest that women were attracted to crime fiction because it offers a sense of control over the violence we so greatly fear. She may well be right. I’m not so sure about claims by others that all girls grow up knowing that to be female is synonymous with being prey, although plenty of recent crime novels and drama series have done their best to create that impression. Yes, a tough woman investigator figure might well be included, but this nod to equality doesn’t stop the corpses being preponderantly female, frequently unclothed, and all too often sexually brutalised in ways which are made horribly explicit. It truly is the stuff of nightmares. I’m grateful I didn’t encounter anything like it when I was thirteen; I only wish I didn’t encounter it with such regularity now. Certainly, nothing could ever persuade me to write about it myself.

In Agatha Christie’s world, at least, to be female is not a problem. Women are never killed just for being women. They are killed for the same reasons men are killed: because they are obstacles to the murderer’s pursuit of power, status, property, revenge, security, love or some other highly desirable goal. A woman is not automatically weak, or helpless, or a victim; she is actually quite as capable of committing murder as a man, and often does. She can catch murderers too: Miss Marple’s success rate equals Hercule Poirot’s, and unlike him she is not an oddball loner. Christie consistently presents her as being very much at the heart of her local community.

Body in the Library coverI recently re-read ‘The Body in the Library’ as research for my short story in ‘Unchained’, and was struck by the dominance of the female characters. It goes without saying that Miss Marple outperforms the entire male police force, but where would Colonel Bantry be without his perspicacious wife? The ingenious murders are devised by a bright young woman of humble background whose dashing, handsome, socially superior male partner does whatever she tells him. Even the female corpses turn out to have been active, resourceful human beings before their deaths. No wonder, as a teenaged girl, I enjoyed the novel so much.

Agatha Christie is often dismissed today as ‘cosy’ and ‘unrealistic’, although this may be partly due to the heavy-handed characterisation and overdone period settings that have marked the TV adaptations of her work; I’d love to see a more subtle production team get their hands on it. And just how realistic are all those psychopathic-serial-killer stories, anyway? Not very, I’d argue.

But maybe that’s only because I find them far too scary. Rather like ‘Hansel and Gretel’.